Four unanswered goals got the South Carolina Stingrays (39-13-6-1) out of a hole and into the win column for the 39th time this season, defeating the Jacksonville Icemen (22-32-4-3) 6-3 on Sunday afternoon at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Steven Whitney led the way for the Rays with four points in the game on a goal and three assists, while Kelly Zajac had two goals and an assist, including the game-winning tally with 4:15 to play. Whitney now leads the Stingrays in overall scoring this season with 49 points on 17 goals and 32 assists in 50 games.
Goaltender Jeff Jakaitis, who returned earlier in the day from a call-up with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, made 30 saves in the game to earn his 16th victory of the season.
Jacksonville took the lead early on with a goal by Cameron Critchlow at 8:02 of the opening period to make it 1-0.
But the Stingrays responded with two tallies in the second half of the period to take the lead right back. Zajac evened the score at 1-1 with a power play goal at 13:22 from Whitney and Joey Leach. The strike was Zajac’s 18th of the season and team-leading eighth on the power play, coming on a wrist shot down low to the bottom left of the Icemen cage.
Whitney gave the Rays the lead for the first time at 17:23 of the first with a deflection in front on a shot by Mike Chen to make it 2-1. The attacker got his stick on the puck as it was flying to towards the net and sent it into the top right corner. Rookie forward Leo Fitzgerald was credited with the second assist on the strike.
The Icemen tied the game back up at 2-2 with a power play goal of their own at 10:03 of the second period when Matt Ustaski found the back of the net on a rebound in front. Jacksonville then took a 3-2 advantage just 1:11 later at 11:14 after Dajon Mingo converted on a give-and-go passing play with Jimmy Lodge.
South Carolina got even at 3-3 before the end of the second when Joe Devin knocked home a one-timer during a 5-on-3 power play for the Rays at 18:42. Devin was open in the right circle and ripped a feed from Taylor Cammarata past Jacksonville goaltender Austin Lotz and into the net for his team-leading 19th goal of the year. Whitney picked up the second assist on the man-advantage tally.
The third period was a scoreless frame for the first 15 minutes of play, with Jakaitis making multiple impressive stops for South Carolina that kept his team even in the game. But the last five minutes were controlled by the Stingrays, as they scored three more times to secure the victory.
Zajac gave SC the lead for good at 15:45 with a goal from the right side of the net off a feed by Fitzgerald that had a second assist from Whitney. A turnover in the offensive zone allowed the team’s hottest line to set up and Zajac finished off the play with his 19th tally of the year to make it 4-3.
Fitzgerald then gave the Stingrays some breathing room moments later, scoring his first professional goal at 17:31 of the third from Zajac and Leach to extend the lead to 5-3.
Cammarata capped things off with an empty net goal and made it 6-3 at 19:11 with assists from Devin and forward Patrick Gaul.
Lotz finished with 22 saves in a losing effort for Jacksonville, as the Icemen outshot South Carolina 33-28 in the contest. Penalties also played a major factor in the final outcome as the Rays went 2-for-7 on the man-advantage while Jacksonville was 1-for-3.
South Carolina continues to hold a strong grip on second place in the South Division with 85 points in the standings. With 13 games remaining in the regular season, the Stingrays are three points behind Florida for first place. SC is now one win away from clinching at least second place in the division.
The Rays host the Idaho Steelheads in a two-game series next week on Thursday and Friday at the North Charleston Coliseum. Both games are scheduled to begin at 7:05 p.m.